The psychology of dress (no matter the era) fascinates me. I want to know why people chose to wear certain garments and find it interesting to see the influence of historical events, artistic movements (literally any type of “happening”) being translated into our wardrobes.
Browsing costume and fashion compendiums, I came across Norah Waugh’s The Cut of Women’s Clothes 1600-1930, which includes fashion commentary – as well as patterns for historical garments. Having a current interest in the Edwardian / La Belle Epoque period, I was particularly eager to read the “Quotations from Contemporary Sources” of that time.
It seems I have romantically glorified the wearing of corsets, petticoats, high collars, and long skirts of the Edwardian era. My idealization would be comparable to theatre historian Walter Macqueen Pope’s observations – his Goodbye Piccadilly autobiographical excerpt appearing in The Cut of Women’s Clothes…describing the appearance and demeanor of Edwardian ladies: “Women wore a tremendous amount of underclothes, as compared with today. They wore many petticoats, fringed with lace which formed an enchanting foam around their ankles… .” His likening of a woman to a sea vessel continues, as he remembers the sight of Edwardian women stepping out of their carriages to shop in their favorite stores: “The lady swept across the pavement like a queen, like a procession of one, for she knew how to move and carry herself. She had balance and poise, she had elegance and she was one hundred per cent feminine. She paid no attention to the world around… but she proceeded like a ship in full sail, a gracious galleon into the harbour of the favoured emporium.”
Focusing on the elegance of women dressed in Edwardian attire, Pope’s account does not reveal the true discomfort and inconvenience disclosed by his female contemporaries – Gwen Raverat, Lady Duff Gordon, and Cynthia Asquith.
Artist, art critic, writer, (and granddaughter of Charles Darwin), Gwen Raverat writes in her autobiography Period Piece: “The thought of the discomfort, restraint and pain, which we had to endure from our clothes, makes me even angrier now than it did then… . Except for the most small-waisted, naturally dumb-bell-shaped females, the ladies never seemed at ease, or even quite as if they were wearing their own clothes.” Raverat describes the wrinkles and bulges caused by whalebone stays under dresses “always made too tight”. Roads, explained Raverat, “were then much muddier than the tarred roads are now”, forcing the wearer of sweeping skirts to brush crusted mud from the hemline.
Lady Duff Gordon, who designed fashion as “Lucile”, wrote in her autobiography Discretions and Indiscretions – of the uncomfortable high-boned collars. “No woman who has not worn one can possibly imagine how horrible it was to have one’s throat scarred by sharp collar supports made of either whalebone or steel, which ran into one with every movement, so that the head had to be kept rigidly in a most unnatural position… .”
In her memoir Remember and Be Glad, English writer Cynthia Asquith says: “Imagine the discomfort of a walk in the rain in a sodden skirt that wound its wetness round your legs and chapped your ankles.” Humorously, Asquith admits – “I once found I had carried into the house a banana skin which had got caught up in the unstitched hem of my dress!” Even the beautiful Edwardian hats had their drawbacks – according to Asquith – “Our vast hats which took the wind like sails were painfully skewered to our heads by huge ornamental hatpins, greatly to the peril of other people’s eyes.”
Asquith points out the greatest impracticality of Edwardian clothing: It often rendered its wearer rather helpless. “We were all humiliatingly dependent on help, most of the dresses we were forever changing being so constructed that it was a physical impossibility to get in or out of them unassisted. Either they laced up at the back, or they fastened with quite un-get-at-able intricacies of hooks and eyes.”
Beginning to reconstruct a 1912 vintage blouse, (from a La Mode Illustree pattern), I understand Asquith’s complaint. The blouse has two rows of buttons – a row in front and one in back. However, the front row is only a facade. The buttons at back provide the true entrance/exit… necessitating the help of a dresser – or very nimble and well-operating fingers, wrists, and shoulders.